Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape
Edge of Sports Books/Akashic Books, 2016
Thanks to varying degrees of commitment from genuine activism to pinkwashing, almost no one is unaware of breast cancer and certainly not so during Breast Cancer Awareness Month when professional sports teams coat themselves in pink. A lesser known awareness month building up steam thanks in no small part to athletics is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, which is also October.
While the NFL makes sure its cheerleaders don the appropriate pink as they shimmy (conveniently ignoring the inherent and blatant sexism), the sport is also dealing with yet another abusive player. This time around it’s now ex-New York Giants kicker Josh Brown. Katie Nolan over at Garbage Time, your standard snarky sports show attempting to infuse a hamfisted Daily Show vibe into sports talk, put together a segment that is one of the best responses to the ongoing situation:
I’ve little to no time for sports radio or the trash programs that are little more than ‘sports shouting’
but Nolan is funny and eloquent in expressing our collective distaste, dissatisfaction, and guilt about domestic abuse. I’m thankful she did the segment bringing a more nuanced, challenging, and fair assessment than that of what we usually get from ESPN’s cadre of ex-abusers turned commentators.
Like breast cancer, domestic violence isn’t just a women’s issue. It is one that is encouraged and enflamed by most of our sports culture. Nolan’s segment is equal parts exasperation, accusation, admission of complicity, and a call to action. Her segment is one of the best examples of what genuine sports journalism can be, how it can demand more from everyone in order to have all our enjoyment in the sport(s) we love heightened.
In the same vein, Unsportsmanlike Conduct written by journalist Jessica Luther released in early September challenges fans, pundits, athletes, and executives to not just do better when it comes to sexual violence but to be better. It behoves us all to not only read it but to read it outside of our awareness months and our comfort zones because as a diehard college football fanatic, Luther did just that to confront the ever-present problem of sexual assault in the NCAA. Wanting “a conversation that looked at this phenomenon with a bigger framework, one that got past the lens of a single case and instead asked tough questions about programs, universities, and college football culture in general” Luther pulls together a book that “is the synthesis of all the patterns I kept seeing and all the suggestions I learned for how we could change them.”
And this last bit it key, because Luther cares for collegiate football and will not allow for mere condemnation, she wants it to change for the better or, rather, to be the glorious event and vibrant culture she like us thought it was. Unsportsmanlike Conduct is divided into two parts: the first identifies the problems and the second provides potential solutions. Her’s isn’t a how-to book; it is, as she calls it, a playbook meant to confront our cultural problem of sexual violence. As Luther writes, “It’s easy to say that you do not condone this kind of violence; it is infinitely harder to take a hard look at how the very sport you love contributes to a culture that ignores, minimizes, and sometimes perpetuates it.” In direct, simple language, Luther is able to present to us how the intersection of race, gender, and class create the sports culture we have today and how if we are not just aware but active, then we can get the sports culture we want that celebrates everyone.
It’s important to understand that sexual violence doesn’t happen in a vacuum and neither do our sports lives as players, as fans, or as indifferent bystanders. We’ve created and perpetuated certain narratives that allow us to shirk our responsibility, to give us and others easy-outs so that we can dodge complicity, that is, guilt. Throughout the book, Luther interrogates herself, her own role as fan and as a sports journalist, leading some some hard realizations: “it’s not that sexual assault cases are not covered by the media…it’s that they are flash-in-the-pan takes (everyone is, after all, in a hurry to move on) compared to other stories that are less complicated, where the moral positioning is less stressful or controversial.” We see this in Katie Nolan’s segment above, even though it’s an excellent piece there is that undercurrent of discomfort, of wanting to not think about it. Because if we do think about for more than a moment, then we realize just how corrupting the culture we live in and form is.
Luther challenges us to look beyond “the black-man-as-criminal and the woman-as-liar” narratives that serve as parachutes for us to escape the heart of the issue. Where issues of race and gender seem to emanate is the still point of wealthy, white men “who create and maintain the culture of college football,” that those from “coaches to athletic directors, from university presidents to the media who cover the sport” who are making “a lot of money off the backs of the players and they have no problem hushing up the voices of mainly women when they feel those women could threaten their players, their game, and their money.” But make no mistake, Luther isn’t simply blaming white men. She’s zeroing in on the power dynamics inherent in collegiate athletics. This dynamic is premised on exploitation where “the humanity of players themselves is often stripped away” leading the players themselves to internalize not just their role but the system itself for those in power “are teaching these players about exploitation and how to use other people’s bodies for one’s own ends.” Too often those other bodies are women.
The layers Luther identifies reinforce each other leaving fans and players only able to see things myopically. The sports culture accomplishes what it set out to do–craft a self-perpetuating, self-justifying institution wherein in fans, players, higher officials, and owners all see the exploitation of bodies as the foundation for success. As Luther puts it, “It’s what they know; it’s what they do.”
But this is not just a doom and gloom book. Rather, it is a book that is stunningly sober and honest, one that doesn’t just point out or analyze flaws but offers concrete, implementable solutions. Luther realizes “Creating new plays for the playbook is possible, even if it is slow” and not addressing the issue (or improperly doing so) only reinforces the problem allowing us all to fall back on tired, bad ‘plays.’ Jessica Luther’s Unsportsmanlike Conduct demands we be better and knows we can be. For this alone, it should be read.
Jessica Luther is a freelance journalist and writer who mainly covers sports and culture, although she writes on a wide range of topics, including media criticism, politics, or things happening in her hometown of Austin, TX.
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Nathaniel E. Baker